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Gebbers Farms had built the housing and done the complex paperwork to bring in foreign guest workers under the federal H-2A program. Workers had landed in Seattle and were en route to the company’s North Central Washington orchards when someone at the company asked, “Do they have bedding?”

“Everything was ready. Workers were getting ready to show up,” said Jon Wyss, government affairs director for Gebbers Farms, among the largest growers of apples and cherries in Washington. “We went to every Wal-Mart in about a 300-mile region and bought every single sheet.”

The point: There’s more to H-2A than you realize, and just when you think you have everything covered, think again.
More and more growers are turning to the complex program to bring in workers, but those who are just now signing on have the added benefit of learning from those who’ve gone before.

Several growers who have been using the H-2A program, labor contractors and a state labor official shared their thoughts on the program and offered tips during the Washington State Tree Fruit Association annual meeting in December.

The two biggest topics centered on housing and making the program more affordable for growers.

Housing. Housing. Housing.

Dan Fazio

Housing is the biggest cost to the H-2A program, and not just the price tag for building or renting a physical space, said Dan Fazio of wafla, a labor contractor based in Lacey, Washington.

Fazio figures it costs $10,000 to build a bed, which includes acquiring the land, construction and putting in a septic system. But that does not include other costs to outfit the facility with sheets, pillowcases, utensils and dishes, or the cost to transport workers to medical care if they get sick. “That’s what gets you on housing,” he said.

When growers elect to use the H-2A program and provide housing, their thought process changes — they go from being an apple, pear or cherry grower to a landlord.

“Your business model changes a bit,” said Troy Frostad, human resources manager for Underwood Fruit, who also oversees the H-2A program for Mt. Adams Orchards in Bingen, Washington. “It’s really important that you sit down and accept that you’re going to have to do things that you normally wouldn’t have to.”

Wyss agreed.

“You will have a very serious discussion about whether you provide sharp knives and what liability goes with providing them,” he said. “You have a lot of individuals in a confined area, and insurance folks will have these discussions with you as you go through the program.”

Two big things to consider:

How do you ensure the housing remains clean and livable? Gebbers Farms employs a camp manager on site to keep an eye out for problems and hires cleaning staff. Dain Craver, an organic grower and consultant in Royal City, Washington, hires an elderly couple to clean once a week, but workers are asked to keep it tidy.

He also said the company has learned how to improve since it built its first two houses.

“Now we make sure we have an aluminum backsplash, concrete floor. It just makes it easier to clean,” he said. “We’re happy with a stick-built house,” he said, estimating the cost of each at about $200,000, or averaging out to $9,800 per bed. “You put orchards in the ground to last 20 to 30 years. You put a house in to last 20 to 30 years.”

Dain Craver at the 113th Annual Meeting and NW Hort Expo in Kennewick, Washington, December 6, 2017. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Dain Craver

Is alcohol allowed? Workers might like to kick back with a cold one at the end of the day, but it’s up to the grower — the landlord — to decide if it’s allowed.

Craver’s house rules bar alcohol onsite, though if workers head into town to shop and want to have a drink, that’s fine. Frostad said Mt. Adams does not provide “dry housing,” figuring the workers could be responsible people. There’ve been some problems, but the company has just swiftly dealt with them, he said.

Then there’s the question of pot. Washington has legalized marijuana, which raised a whole new issue, Wyss said. The company added a line to its contracts banning illicit drugs, including marijuana, “because the last thing you want is somebody moving around equipment on drugs.”

Then there’s the money

The panelists also provided tips for making the program more affordable. Keeping workers for six months comes with a tax benefit, and sharing workers among growers across the season can benefit everyone — if one grower has a short season, find another grower to send the workers to before or after the season.

Craver offered one caveat though. “Make sure everybody is on the same pages where the workers are going to be and when,” he said. “When you come in and share with another grower, it is a savings, but make sure you have everything lined out before you sign on the dotted line.”

The program allows growers to request the same workers again, so once they get a couple of years of experience, growers have a trained, educated workforce for their particular farms, Wyss said.

“Workers absolutely love the program. We have a 92 percent return rate,” he said. “If you treat them right, you treat them with respect, you work with them, they come back, and they want to come back.”

And a reminder…

Don’t forget about local workers, Rene Maldonado of Washington WorkSource said during a Spanish-language session at the annual meeting.

“The biggest thing is that the program is intended to ensure that domestic workers are hired” and have first shot at the jobs, he said.

Too often, middle managers or supervisors haven’t been trained about how to respond when local workers show up asking if there are any jobs available.

If that supervisor responds that the company is only hiring foreign workers, it’s the biggest mistake a grower of any size can make when participating in the program, he said.

And train those same managers about how to treat the foreign workers, too.

“You’re bringing folks from another country who don’t know the rules, don’t know where everything is. They don’t know where the supermarket is,” he said. “Don’t assume that your middle managers know how to assist these workers. Assume that they don’t, and you should provide the training.” •

—by Shannon Dininny